Noah Cain’s father can still remember his surprise when a fellow dad cozied up to him, not too far from the YMCA’s concession stand that sold hot dogs and Cokes. The man, known for his constant scowl, told him his son was special.
Noah was about 6 years old at the time, playing basketball in a Louisiana youth league. And that man just so happened to be former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, who served as LSU’s defensive coordinator at the time, and whose son was on the same team.
“Mr. Cain,” Terence Cain remembers Pelini saying, “I coached a lot of players; I travel around the country all the time. And I’m going to tell you the way he changes direction and the way your son moves, he’s got a unique gift.”
Terence thanked him, then shrugged it off. He knew his son — now a true freshman running back at Penn State — was talented. But Noah wasn’t far removed from earning his first Cub Scouts badge. He still had a long, long way to go.
But, even at a young age, his ability was impossible to miss.
“As time progressed and he continued to excel, it’s like, ‘Woah,’” Cain’s father, Terence, said. “You start to see him continuing to evolve and develop, and it was very, very unique what he was doing.”
Fast forward to the present, and Cain is fast becoming a household name in Happy Valley. The soft-spoken Southern kid who used to take piano lessons leads Penn State in rushing yards (310) and touchdowns (6).
In a crowded backfield, and with a four-back rotation, Cain has still risen to the top at midseason. He’s the most consistent part of an explosive-but-inconsistent offense; take away every back’s longest run, and Cain is averaging nearly a half-yard more per carry than anyone else. (That’s 5.05 ypc to Devyn Ford’s 4.62, Journey Brown’s 4.35 and Ricky Slade’s 1.85.)
The compact 206-pound back barrels forward with every touch, hesitating little and falling forward a lot. He’s the designated back in the four-minute offense — and he’s proven to be a handful for defenders.
“He can take multiple guys with him and just drag them,” teammate and OL Steven Gonzalez said. “I thought that was pretty impressive for a guy his size. I mean, I’ve never seen that in person.”
Talk to Cain’s father, or the coaches who taught him in youth leagues, and you’ll get the same answer: That’s always been Noah.
He played every sport growing up, hitting the soccer fields at 3 1/2 years old and joining youth teams in basketball, baseball and football. In fact, in Louisiana, there was even a tackle football team for 4-year-olds — and Noah was in that one, too.
“He never wanted to come out of the game, regardless what sport it was,” Terence said. “It’s just something he always wanted.”
But there was always an allure about football, and something fellow coaches like Pelini couldn’t help but see. Noah moved to Texas before hitting junior high, and he shined there, too.
Former New York Jet Ray Mickens, who played for 11 NFL seasons, still remembers watching Noah for the first time right around sixth grade.
“His youth coach was running him every time they got the ball, and he would score,” said Mickens, who ran a travel team in a different league that Noah eventually played in. “He was breaking tackles, at least 5-6 tackles. He would score about six touchdowns a Saturday morning. And I’m like, he’s a special kid, a special runner.”
Breaking tackles is why he’s a fan favorite at Penn State now. Teammates affectionately refer to him as “Noah Gain,” and it’s not uncommon to see him dragging a defender for another few yards.
His running style has complemented the offense well. Against Pitt, Cain saw just a single drive — but, in that 88-yard scoring drive, he amassed 40 rushing yards, 13 receiving yards and scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown. Every rush went at least 3 yards, and he earned more touches in the games after that.
With Purdue, Cain carried eight times in the final quarter for 82 yards. (He finished with 105 yards.) Only one fourth-quarter run went for fewer than 5 yards — and it was a 2-yard touchdown. And, against Iowa’s top-20 rush defense, he picked up a game-high 102 yards — becoming the only back to rush for more than 55 yards against the Hawkeyes this season.
“People have to respect the run game now, so that’s pretty cool for us to have a teammate like that,” wideout Jahan Dotson said, referring to Cain. “And we know every time he gets the ball, if we just get one or two blocks for him, he can spring it to a big play.”
Mickens, who racked up 11 career interceptions in the NFL, swears he isn’t surprised by Cain’s immediate success. Cain played for Mickens’ youth team, too, one that routinely fielded future Division I prospects in junior high.
And, even among Texas’ best young football players, Cain still separated himself. Mickens said Cain never complained. Not a single time. If it was time to hit up extra agility training, or waking up early on a Sunday for an extra practice, he did it without asking questions.
“Like I tell him all the time, it’s about how much he wants it,” said Mickens, who still keeps in touch with Cain. “Do you want a little, or do you want it all? It’s all about how hard you work, so he’s always been a hard worker, one of the hardest workers of all the kids I had.”
Cain dominated the Texas youth leagues and in 7-on-7s. And, in high school, it was more of the same. As a freshman at Guyer, he had more than 1,000 rushing yards and 10 scores. As a sophomore, those numbers increased to 1,638 yards and 22 touchdowns. And as a junior, he transferred to powerhouse IMG Academy in Florida — and improved his recruiting stock to become the No. 6-ranked back in the nation, even if those stats dipped a bit.
“Maybe a kid will go for 2,000 yards or 3,000 yards as a junior — but is that really helping them? Really?” asked Terence Cain. “I mean, it looks good, but how is that really helping? It’s not, and that’s why we (went to IMG).”
At Penn State, it took teammates a few months to fully appreciate Cain’s talents. James Franklin often preached that he wanted to find a back who practiced as consistently as he played in games, but that was a bit tricky for Cain since, well, it’s difficult dragging defenders when hitting is limited in practices.
Tight end Pat Freiermuth, who was a freshman All-American last season, said he didn’t realize just how good Cain was until the spring game.
“In spring ball, we didn’t really know what he could do because we didn’t really tackle,” Freiermuth said. “And, in the spring game, he kind of balled out and we’re like, ‘Oh, where’s this kid coming from?’”
Cain proved himself again in camp. Then against Idaho. Pitt. Purdue. And Iowa. The true freshman has been a pleasant surprise to those who don’t know him — and a complete non-surprise to those who know him best.
But both groups can now converge and agree on something: The future is bright for 18-year-old Noah Cain.
“It didn’t take him long, and now he’s got it,” Mickens said. “The sky’s the limit for him.”
Added Freiermuth: “I just can’t wait to see what he does in the future.”